Weight of authority

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2007, 12:00am

It all began with a lot of puffing and panting. A Hong Kong police constable who was not in the best physical shape failed his annual fitness test last year, as he was not up to the relatively modest benchmark requiring male officers to complete a 2.4km run in less than 121/2 minutes for those under the age of 35 and 131/2 minutes for those aged over 35.

Failing the fitness test, while embarrassing, was hardly a career-ending matter. Normally in such a case the officer would be ordered to sort their health out and perhaps packed off for a few days to what is jokingly referred to within the force as a 'fatties' camp' for some basic training and guidance on healthier living habits.

Unlike hundreds before him, however, this police constable was not going to accept either the result of the test or the prospect of an enforced diet under the force's direction.

Instead, he complained to the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), saying it was unfair and discriminatory that under the rules of the test, policewomen had a whole minute more than their male counterparts in which to complete the run.

The EOC apparently supported that view, advising the police that they had to apply the same standards to all of force's more than 27,000 male and female officers. Partly as a result of that case, the annual fitness test used since 1985 to make sure officers were up to the rigours of their job has been abolished.

In its place - controversially as far as some police officers are concerned - is what management describes as a holistic approach to fitness within the force, titled rather grandly 'An Integrated Approach to Physical Fitness and Health Management (PHM)', although the police insist they were working on this new approach long before the EOC case arose.

The difference between the two systems is breathtaking. Above all, PHM is a voluntary programme that takes an overview of officers' health and well-being. There are no tests or benchmarks. There is no mandatory annual 2.4km run, although even in the days of the annual fitness test officers could opt to do a 4.8km walk or a 2km row using a rowing machine, if they preferred.

Instead, commanding officers take into account activity in the 47 police sports and arts clubs offering sport and recreation for members outside of working hours.

These clubs have a combined total membership of more than 20,000. Some clubs such as the Police Athletics Club, the Police Bodybuilding and Powerlifting Club, the Police Squash Club, the Police Boxing Club and the Police Football Club undoubtedly do a great deal to add muscle to the force's front line and are more than an adequate substitute for an annual 2.4km run.

But they also include some that even the most vociferous opponents of the old annual fitness tests would be stretched to argue are a suitable replacement activity - for example, the Police Philatelic Society, the Police Painting and Calligraphy Club, the Police Handicraft Club, the Police Horticulture Society, the Police Magic Club, the Police Model Flying Club and the Police Tea Art Club. The abolition of the fitness test has brought astonishment and disapproval from some traditionalists.

'It's an absolute joke,' said one senior police officer who asked not to be named. 'How is being a member of a stamp-collecting club or a knitting circle going to prepare you in any way for chasing an armed robber?

'There has to be some sort of fitness requirement within the force. Maybe I'm being old-fashioned but I believe if you're a police officer and you have a body mass index over what it should be, you should be told to either sort yourself out or you're out of a job. Members of the public expect a certain level of fitness from police officers and we can't just shirk that responsibility altogether.'

Another officer said there was probably a greater need for a mandatory fitness test today than there was in 1985, when the tests were introduced.

'Fitness levels within the force have certainly declined in recent years,' he said.

'Diets are changing, people are doing less exercise and police officers are becoming less fit, just like everyone else in Hong Kong.'

A police spokesman vigorously defended the new approach. 'One must avoid adopting a narrow vision,' he said.

'In addition to sports and exercise, other forms of engagement such as horticulture, voluntary work and cultural pursuits are equally beneficial. All-round healthy living is a personal commitment to one's lifestyle.'

PHM did not take the place of occupational fitness requirements for officers serving in specialist units such as the Police Tactical Unit, the Special Duties Unit or the Airport Security Unit, which still had fitness programmes of their own, the spokesman said.

One policeman who is not sorry to see the old fitness test abolished is Chief Inspector Tony Liu Kit-ming, of the Hong Kong Police Local Inspectors' Association.

'It has served its purpose in raising awareness about the need for police officers to be fit but there is no training and no scientific benchmark for the run or the row or the walk,' he said. 'There have been accidents, although we don't know if they were directly related to the fitness test or not. Nevertheless, we did feel uneasy about it.'

That uneasiness over the test reached a peak in 2003 when constable Ng Chun-shan, 30, collapsed and died after completing a 4.8km walk for the annual fitness test, just 11 months after a 28-year-old constable died after completing a 2.4km run in Wong Tai Sin.

Chief Inspector Liu said few details of the new 'holistic approach' had been given to police officers, but he hoped the new system would be more scientific.

'Police officers must be fit otherwise they can't perform their duties effectively,' he said. 'People have a right to expect police officers to be fit otherwise members of the public can't be protected.

'We have to do something to maintain our level of fitness whether it is through an annual fitness test or a training programme. As far as I am aware that has yet to be decided but obviously the annual fitness test has to some degree served its purpose in increasing the awareness in police officers of these issues.'

The police spokesman declined to say how big a part the complaint to the EOC last year had played in making the force decide to scrap the annual fitness test, and insisted the review of the annual fitness had begun well before the complaint. Its benefits included the fact that it involved all members of the force, while the annual fitness test involved only disciplined officers aged below 50.

A spokeswoman for the EOC said she was unable to discuss the case as it was still active but made the commission's stance clear.

'Under the Sexual Discrimination Ordinance, it is unlawful for a person to discriminate against a man or woman on the grounds of their sex. Both men and women have the right to equal treatment.' That meant that if any test was conducted to judge a person's fitness for a particular job, it had to be equal for men and women, she said.

Chief Inspector Dave Williams, chairman of the Overseas Officers Association, one of a number of police organisations that were consulted over the scrapping of the annual fitness test, said he supported the case for change but believed that some kind of fitness test was needed.

'The main problem with the run was that it wasn't relevant,' he said. 'How often is a police officer going to find himself or herself running that kind of distance? They are more likely to find themselves having to deal with being on their feet and on the beat for hours on end.'

Chief Inspector Williams conceded that the new system relying largely on police sports and arts clubs for fitness 'might seem a little bit ridiculous' but he added: 'As far as I'm aware it's not going to end there. There are more meetings to be held over this and consultations are continuing.'

Many members of Chief Inspector Williams' association favour a system similar to the POPAT (police officers physical ability test) used in Canada which takes place in a gym and uses a series of situational fitness tasks such as lifting and carrying, pushing and pulling, climbing and jumping over low obstacles.

'I do think we have to have some form of test but it must be relevant,' said Chief Inspector Williams.

'There's no point in having a test for no reason. As long as this current arrangement is an interim measure and we get a proper test in the long run, this shouldn't be too much of a problem.'

Whatever Chief Inspectors Williams and Liu think, police management appears to see PHM as the solution rather than an interim measure.

It will be subject to 'ongoing reviews' but the police spokesman insisted: 'PHM has fully absorbed the functions of the annual fitness test by placing emphasis on inculcating and sustaining the culture of physical health and fitness among all force members in the long term.'

Meaning that, whatever happens, all that sweating once a year over their fitness is very much a thing of the past for all serving Hong Kong policemen and women.